Well potted

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In July last year, Glenys K Pople, from Stockport in Cheshire, wrote to me extolling the virtues of potted meats. Well, she couldn't have chosen a more enthusiastic recipient if she had tried. Potted meats are one of the most comforting things to eat, nibble at or begin a meal. Shrimps are one of my most favoured first courses, at any time; also ham and tongue potted together and served with Cumberland sauce; or salmon mixed with butter, mace and cayenne and further seasoned up with a little anchovy essence. And then there is the unique recipe for Pople potted beef.

The way the dish is described to me by this good woman is worth the reading in itself. She suggests that her potted beef is a good thing to have around at Christmas and goes on to say that sliced it "makes the most excellent sandwiches ever. We have them every year for tea on Christmas Day." Or it can be "served with saute potatoes and whatever vegetable and/or relish you like. Hot beetroot goes particularly well."

That sounds a spiffing idea; perhaps bound with some good parsley sauce. The whole notion of this potted beef sounds like welcome frugality after the Christmas excess. But what intrigues me most about the dish is the list of ingredients:

shin beef

salt and pepper

water

Now this is where I become hooked. Would it not be wonderful if all recipes could start like this? No measurements for one. While on that controversial subject, why, oh why, do I still have to supply conversions? When will the UK finally come around to realising that metric measures - with no alternative Imperial amounts - would be better for all concerned? The metric system is so much more accurate and easier to use. It didn't take long for us to grasp decimal currency, did it? But I digress. What Glenys Pople's recipe is all about is a simple and nourishing dish, made with minimum fuss, that tastes marvellous. What more could you ask for? Anyway, here it is, as sent to me.

Shopping

Buy 3-4lb beef (or 1.4-1.8 kilos if you insist), which must be shin beef from the lower leg of the beast as this recipe will not work with any other cut. It will work with any amount but it's hardly worth doing with less.

The Original Method

Cut off the fat and any horrible bits, but leave as much of the inter- connective tissue as possible. This will dissolve in cooking. Cut the beef into cubes no bigger than a quarter of an inch. It takes an age, but have patience and a cup of your favourite beverage to keep you going as this step is vital to the finished dish. Put the beef in a saucepan, add water to cover, bring to the boil and skim until the froth is no longer dirty brown or until you are tired of skimming. It looks very unprepossessing at this stage.

Cover and simmer very gently. Add water from time to time if it looks too dry, but do not swamp it. You are aiming for the stage at which the meat "goes to rags" - where each piece of meat will easily separate into individual fibres (this may take three to four hours). Boil hard to drive off any excess water while at the same time stirring the mixture vigorously with a fork to break the meat down. At the end the mixture should be moist but not wet. Test it by pushing the meat to one side and tilting the pan. If the liquid runs out, boil for a moment or two longer.

Season with salt and pepper, bearing in mind that you will be serving this cold and it needs more than if you were serving it hot.

Pile into (tradition says) an old-fashioned pudding bowl, the sort that you might use for a steamed pudding. Pack down well. Put a saucer on top. Weigh it down with the family Bible. Leave to cool for 24 hours on (tradition again) a cold flagged floor, by the end of which it should be set and you can remove the Bible.

The flavour will improve in a couple of days.

To serve

Turn out of the bowl and slice.

Notes

This is plain and honest food that depends on true flavours. You could vary the recipe by adding other seasonings, but I have never found them to be an improvement. A dash of soy was just about OK, but even Worcestershire sauce was a distraction. Much better to leave it as it is and if you want more complex flavours, do another recipe.

The meat when pressed will only hold together if there was sufficient gelatinous material present. Being very particular and a bit squeamish, I trim my meat well initially, but put the less nasty trimmings in a separate pot to simmer away at the same time and use this "stock" instead of water for topping up.

For those who have neither pudding bowls nor family Bible, it works perfectly with any sort of container (rectangular ones will make slicing easier). If necessary, get a piece of stiff card, cut it to size, wrap it in clingfilm or foil, pop it on top of the meat and weight with a couple of tins. Instead of the cold flagged floor, I do the best that I can and refrigerate once it is reasonably cool.

As simple as the recipe is, it does depend on a certain amount of judgement for its sliceability. If it won't slice neatly, never mind. It will still taste wonderful.

Thank you, Glenys K Pople

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